Saturday, August 12, 2006

Its Often Funny in Philadelphia

The story behind the FX series It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia has already become legend in struggling actor/comedian/writer circles. A group of friends frustrated with the lack of opportunities for struggling actor/comic/writers spend the change in their pockets to film a pilot, send it into FX, win a contest and voila, are given a series. We saw something similar with the Project Greenlight series but what makes Sunny special is that we actually get to enjoy the finished project, as opposed to week after week of watching socially challenged film geeks hire their grandfathers as stunt doubles and fall further and further behind schedule.

The premise of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia is three late 20-something guys, Charlie, Mac and Dennis, who run a bar in Philadelphia with the help of Dennis’s sister Dee. Early reviews of the show compared it to Seinfeld, and tossed about phrases like “edgy”, “politically incorrect” and “totally unlike anything that’s ever been seen on TV before”. These terms have all managed to become clichés, thanks I would argue, to Seinfeld, and the generation of snarky Yuppie comedies it inspired. What makes Sunny worth watching is that it’s actually funny. Really funny. Laugh until you can’t breathe, “I cannot believe I’m watching this happen” television.

Not only did these buddies manage to sell a TV pilot for which they are the main producers, writers and stars, but they even managed to add Danny DiVito to the cast. DiVito hit sitcom gold with Taxi twenty some odd years ago and has had no reason to return to television since. The lure of Sunny proved too strong to resist. DiVito plays the role of Dennis and Dee’s ne’er do well pop Frank who moves back to Philly to help them run the bar, a role he tears into like a rottweiler with a bloody steak.

One of the things I really enjoy about Sunny is the full minute of parental advisory warnings FX shows before each episode. First, an FCC add about the joys of using the V-chip to control children’s viewing habits, then a black screen with MA-VL and a lengthy definition of what that means, complete with voiceover. Unlike the joking tone that accompanies the warnings for shows like South Park or Jackass, these are straight up THIS PROGRAM IS NOT INTENDED FOR CHILDREN type warnings. I’ve always felt that FX is Fox’s attempt at correcting the karmic imbalance from Fox News. The message is clear: beware ye all who enter here. Should you become offended, you have no one to blame but yourself.

Well fine, you say. In a world where “edgy” is used to describe a program like Desperate Housewives, what is it that you’re telling me? A quick visit to some episode titles for It’s Always Sunny might be helpful. “Charlie gets Molested,” “Charlie has Cancer”, “Charlie Wants an Abortion”, “Dennis and Dee go on Welfare”, “Underage Drinking”, “Mac Bangs Dennis’ Mom” and “Charlie Goes America All Over Everybody’s Ass” are a pretty representative sample.

The first episode I happened to catch was “Dennis and Dee Go On Welfare”. When it was finished, I nearly wept with joy. I wanted to gift wrap it and send it via strip-o-gram to the Parent’s Television Council, in hopes that they might spontaneously combust, or just surrender all their TV sets and move their families to Alberta. I can explain to you what happened in the episode, but no part of my explanation will capture the genius and lunacy of the show.

Angry at the way Frank is running the bar, Dennis and Dee quit at which point they discover the joys of unemployment payments. Each decides they are going to use the unemployment to fund the pursuit of their respective career goals, vet and actress. Meanwhile at the bar, Mac and Charlie are tired of doing double duty covering Dennis and Dee’s old jobs, so they convince Frank to apply for a “welfare to work” program that would allow them to hire cheap government subsidized labor, who they have the unfortunate habit of referring to as “slaves”. When Dennis and Dee find their unemployment running out they panic for a way to continue on welfare and, after some wacky misadventures, find themselves addicted to crack. (I swear to you it’s funny) Meanwhile Mac and Charlie head down to the welfare office and ask the officer if there’s some kind of book they can look through to pick the slaves, um, laborers, that they want to come work for them. (I swear to you it’s funny, too).

In “Charlie Wants an Abortion”, Mac begins hanging out with anti-abortion protestors when he realizes that it’s a great environment to pick up women. He hooks up with a pro-lifer who rewards his passion for the cause with passion in the back seat of her car. The girl is, according to Mac, a total freak in the sack and the best sex he’s ever had. Before you roll your eyes, allow me to refer you to recent studies from Yale and Columbia universities which suggest that teens who take ‘abstinence only’ pledges are more likely to engage in both oral and anal sex.

This is the genius of It’s Always Sunny. Crack is not funny. Welfare is not funny. Abortion is not funny. But Charlie, Frank, Dennis, Dee and Mac ARE funny. They’re clueless, self absorbed and compulsively watch-able. What you realize watching this show is that while crack, welfare and abortion aren’t funny, America’s clueless, self absorbed attitudes about these things are in fact, hysterical.

The phrase “politically incorrect” is virtually meaningless in this day and age. When I attended college it was a loose collection of symptoms which led us to label the most benign issues controversial for fear of offending anyone and everyone from the Vegan Libertarian Front to the Campus Crusade for Christ. Lately it has come to define everything from what people used to call plain old straight talk to simply mean-spirited behavior. The best comedy which often earns the title “politically incorrect” is that which hits the Left and the Right equally hard. It shows that as long as we take them seriously, it’s the wing nuts from both sides that ruin life for the rest of us. The only solution for the rest of us is to join the circus and laugh them offstage.

It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia is finishing up its accelerated summer season this week. I’m tickled to see that guest starring in the final episode is Stephan Collins, none other than the Reverend Cameron from 7th Heaven. My theory about FX being Fox’s karma bitch apparently holds for actors on the Fox network as well. Welcome, Reverend Cameron! It’s never too late to join the circus.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006


Popular Librarian is undergoing some moderate cosmetic alteration. Namely, PopLib is becoming Populucious.

The heart and soul of the site remains the same: disconcertingly thoughtful analysis of popular culture and anything else that catches my fancy.

As I make this transition, I'll be posting new articles to both Popular Librarian and Populucious, at least for the next month or so. Eventually though, PopLib will be gracefully retired and Populucious will become the only place to be!!!

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Summer Doldrums

I confess I was excited the first time I saw ads for BBC America’s HEX. Truth is I’m in perpetual mourning for Buffy the Vampire Slayer and may be ‘til the day I die, or Josh Whedon finally directs Wonder Woman. I confess I had some small hope that this trendy demony looking show might be a temporary balm.

It started off semi promising. Cassie is a pretty blonde teenager struggling to fit in at an exclusive boarding school of the sort that only seems to exist in Great Britain. It’s set on impossibly lovely and remote grounds, the school resembles an ancient castle, the students appear to be able to leave the grounds with impunity in order to visit the local uber-hip pub and the urbane headmaster dismisses them with bon mots like: “Be free and try not to multiply”.

Cassie’s roommate is Thelma who is, of course, a Lesbian who dresses in some BBC wardrobe mistress’s idea of “goth chick” chic. Thelma loves Cassie. Cassie loves boys and yearns to be popular. There’s the cool in-crowd headed by a cruel bitch named (I’m not making this up) Roxanne. Through a series of wacky misadventures Cassie discovers that she is descended from a long line of witches and is being stalked by a sexy fallen angel named Azazeal. Azazeal wants Cassie to have his baby who will, as is so often the case in these instances, unleash unpleasantness on earth.

Azazeal has been wandering the earth trying, unsuccessfully, to impregnate many generations of blonde waifs since being drummed out of heaven some thousand years ago, apparently for his penchant for trying to knock up blonde waifs. (Note to fundamentalists: Even God wants his angels practicing "safe sex"!) Azazeal is tall dark and handsome, with dreamy eyes and cheekbones that could cut diamonds. One would think he’d not have much problem pulling tail. However, his means of seduction involve driving Cassie’s mother insane, revealing himself in monstrous demonic form, possessing a boy Cassie’s dating, stealing her unborn baby and murdering her roommate. Maybe next time he could try buying a girl a drink. Seriously, it’s worked for millions.

So far, a pale imitation of Buffy, yet somehow even with magic and complicated mythology and stone gargoyles turning into real ones Hex is in fact excruciatingly dull. Part of the problem is Cassie. She drifts around trying to get boys to like her when she ought to be, I dunno, figuring out how to stop Armageddon. She discovers magic powers but never seems to use them when they might be useful. When given explicitly clear guidelines for her safety, such as “He can’t harm you if you wear this pendant” and “Whatever you do, don’t leave the safety of the pentagram”, she’s the sort of girl who’ll promptly lose the pendant and run out of the pentagram to chase after a loud crashing noise in the dark yelling “Hello?” While plenty of 98 minute horror films are based on this particular type of lass, an 8 week TV series is an entirely different matter. One begins to root for Azazeal to just sacrifice her already, and on to the next generation please.

Any entertainment to be had comes from Thelma who, after being offed by Az, returns as a ghost. A goth chic Lesbian ghost. The thing I really love about the BBC is that much of their television seems so quaint. Sitcoms regularly star characters in the most ridiculous guises with no attempt to hide bad wigs or fake padding. The network motto ought to be “Hey gang, lets put on a show!” Thelma is eventually joined in her struggle by a demon hunter who dresses like Barbarella on her way to a Prince concert. No one in the school seems the least perturbed by this new 30-ish student wearing a purple lace trimmed black leather cat suit and duster jacket. British boarding school is so awesome!


Wednesday, August 02, 2006


Ok kits and kats, all 7 of you, I need your help and it wont be too painful. Long story short: Bravo TV show Project Runway is having an 'ultimate fanblog' contest. If you follow the link above, it will take you to a page where you can read and vote for your favorite of 10 entries. You don't have to read all 10. You don't have to read any of them. Just vote for mine. Mine is titled Runway Addict and I am, of course, Kati I. If possible, please do it repeatedly.

Long story long: I'm a huge fan of the show, and my entry was picked from HUNDREDS of entries to be one of the TOP TEN. Of all the huge Project Runway geeks in all the land, I am ONE OF THE TOP TEN-IEST. If my blog entry gets the most votes, then I will get a regular spot on the Bravo TV Project Runway sight, and my two minutes of non-famous fame will begin!

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Shallowgrave Farms Chicken

Here's a little totally inappropriate comedy from a up and coming sketch group called Donkey Corleone. In my own totally unbaised opinion, these guys are the next Kids in the Hall.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Pirates Return With Superman's Chest

Whether or not you enjoy Pirates of the Caribbean II: Dead Man’s Chest really depends on what exactly you demand from a pirate movie. Given the spotty success record Hollywood has had with pirate films in the recent past, and the mediocre reviews PoC II has received, it seems that many American film reviewers have very particular demands from a film about rogues upon the sea. I was inspired to peruse pirate movie reviews of yore and came up with an interesting representation:

Pirates (1986 Dir: Roman Polanski)

The movie bogs down in a hopeless quagmire of too much talk, too many characters and ineptly staged confrontations in which everyone stands around wondering what to do next. – ROGER EBERT

Hook (1991 Dir: Steven Spielberg)

Poignancy. Lessons to be learned. Speeches to be made. Lost marbles to be rediscovered. Tears to be shed. The conclusion of "Hook" would be embarrassingly excessive even for a movie in which something of substance had gone before. - ROGER EBERT

"Hook" is overwhelmed by a screenplay heavy with complicated exposition. - VINCENT CANBY

Cutthroat Island (1995 DIR: Renny Harlin)

It doesn't transcend its genre, and it's not surprising or astonishing. I saw it because that was my job and, having seen it, I grant its skill…But unless you're really into pirate movies, it's not a necessary film. – ROGER EBERT

The most punishing aspect of ``Cutthroat Island'' is that it just wears down the viewer with a helter-skelter, needlessly overblown quality. No wonder those old pirates didn't survive -- they were too tired from so much hyperactivity. - PETER STACK

Pirates of the Caribbean-Dead Man’s Chest (2006 DIR: Gore Verbinski)

Too long, unnecessarily complicated and often silly – JACK MATTHEWS

There's nothing so tedious as nonstop excitement. STEPHANIE ZACHEREK

Is that now perfectly clear? A pirate movie needs to be fast moving and exciting, without tedious and complicated exposition, although it should transcend its genre and refrain from tedious nonstop excitement and needless overblown hyperactivity. Clearly, it should surprise and astonish but avoid silliness, because piracy is a damn serious business, and honestly none of it really matters unless you’re really into pirate movies.

With these clearly delineated standards to follow I’m amazed Disney green lighted (green lit?) the first Pirates of the Caribbean film. Obviously the film criticism community hadn’t reviewed these standards when they were reviewing the first one, since it received near universal acclaim. I believe a good deal of that approbation came out of the surprise factor. Before it was released, Pirates had that kind of worried buzz that surrounded Titanic before it overrwhelmed us all. It was an expensive special effects laden action movie starring Johnny Depp who had spent most of his career demolishing his non-indie film cred. Clearly studio heads were nervous about his performance and there were lots of worried articles about arguments over Depp’s dental work to make his teeth look pirate-y, a clear sign of a studio desperate to diminish expectations. The movie was based on a Disneyland ride for chrissake.

In fact it was part of a master plan by Disney to launch film series based on three of their amusement park rides. The other two were The Country Bears and The Haunted Mansion. Unless you have kids (and even if you do) you have no reason to remember either of these films. Haunted Mansion was one of those Eddie Murphy vehicles the reviews of which mostly centered on the theme “remember when Eddie Murphy was funny?” The Country Bears, based on Disney’s animatronic banjo playing bears stage show, got such universally wretched reviews that I actually seriously considered not buying it for the Library system, unprecedented for a Disney film.

The result was that most reviewers were completely stunned to find PoC to be utterly entertaining. Johnny Depp was epic as Jack Sparrow, a booze soaked scallywag with his brains scrambled from too much rum, sun and the lash (as opposed to the classic British Naval recruitment promise of “rum, buggery and the lash”, this being Disney and all). Was there a plot? Can you remember it? Come on. Be honest. No, you can’t. You remember being entertained. You remember something about a pearl, or a boat, or a chest of gold, and half dead ghosts, and Keira Knightly’s bosom and Orlando Bloom’s swashbuckle, a talking parrot and a cheeky monkey.

Well, PoC II has all of these things. It has a boat, a chest, a bosom, lots of swashbuckle, a talking parrot, a cheeky monkey and an intrepid dog. It also has a compass, a key, cannibals, a voodoo queen and the evil kraken. It has even more awesomely evil bad guys than the first one. In human form the British Navy is replaced by The British East India Company, which hasn’t had a good starring evil role in simply centuries and more’s the pity. Forget Enron and Halliburton. The British East India Company invented uber-national corporate malfeasance. In supernatural form it’s Davy Jones and his minions who are a special effects masterpiece: living, walking, talking growing coral reefs in human form. Utterly gross, scary and fun.

Orlando Bloom. What a name. Now that the days of sexy bad boy poets have gone, what else could the poor boy do but become an actor? Orlando does a masterful job at whatever it is he’s supposed to do. Keira Knightly wields her sexy so fiercely I worried someone might lose an eye, although clearly the teenage boys in the audience did not mind. Spoiler alert! There’s a cliffhanger ending, which means you’re going to have to come back next year to discover how it all turns out. I’m going to go out on a limb and guess it’s not with them all dead by suicide pact at the bottom of the sea. After all, this is Disney and Disney knows that the ride is crap unless you exit panting to stand in line to ride it again.

Oh yeah, in the theater next door, Superman has Returned. He looks good. Well rested. Still hot. Flying better than ever. Still conflicted with that whole “I want to save the world but still find time for dating” business. Lex Luther? Still evil. Still funny. Still trying to blow up the whole world for financial gain, which seems a shaky business plan to me but who’s asking, right? Lois is still around although unfortunately she seems to have been replaced by her Stepford wife version. She's no longer clutsy, funny, gangly and awkward, a woman who would really only inspire two men on earth to battle for her affections, that being Clark Kent and Superman. She's now just pretty. Pretty and angry and dating That Guy. You know That Guy. You don’t know his name but he’s always “the other guy”, the one the girl is with but shouldn’t be, except that he is kind of nice in an annoying Mr. Understanding Perfect Pants kind of way.

There’s other stuff, like plot and whatever, but is that why you go to a summer blockbuster film about a man in a body suit? Or pirates? Is it, really? I think not.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006


She tried to sit in my lap while I was standing up.
-Phillip Marlowe in The Big Sleep

Laura Dannon: Do you trust me now?
Brendan Frye: Less now than when I didn’t trust you before.
- Brick

Brick, directed by Rian Johnson, is a great noir mystery, reminiscent of Dashiell Hammet or James Ellroy. Like any Bogart film or Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential, it has sharp witty dialog which is less realistic than it is how we all desperately wish we could communicate. It is set in Southern California which, for all its natural and artificial beauty, has another side. A yellowing grass, dying palm tree, mall parking lot suburban wasteland which can appear very much like hell without any imagination whatsoever. It has a beautiful blonde in distress, a loner who wants to save her, authority figures who want him to rat or be sold down the river, a complicated web of bad drugs and betrayal, a drug kingpin who may or may not be real and a sultry brunette who is definitely femme, possibly fatale as well.

Every great mystery has its conceit. In the Maltese Falcon it was that a nebulous black statue was worth dying for. Chinatown depends upon the audience accepting that, in Southern California anyway, water is something worth killing for. Brick requests that you accept that high school is one of the most dangerous places on earth, and late adolescence the most dangerous time.

Our hero, Brendan, receives a hysterical, almost unintelligible phone call from his ex-girlfriend Emily. Two days later she is dead. He starts asking questions. “Who’s she been eating lunch with?” he asks a friend. “I couldn’t say,” is the reply. “Lunch is many things. Lunch is complicated.” Brendan could call the cops, but knowing who done it isn’t enough. He needs to know why, and maybe break a few heads, make somebody pay for what he couldn’t prevent.

The problem with most movies set in high school, even clever ones, is that the stakes are so very low. Will he/she go with me to the prom? Will I pass the essential exam? Will the big game be won? Will my parents let me down in some critical way and yet will I grow enough to forgive their humanity? Even edgy or macabre tales like Heathers or Mean Girls, which show just how evil teens can be to each other, are presented as comedies, with a knowing wink to the audience.

We laugh and shake our heads. Aren’t we so much older and wiser now? If we’re honest with ourselves, we would acknowledge that our relief comes from a much more primal place. Like war veterans we are just desperately glad to be out of there with all our limbs intact. Under no circumstances, even knowing now what we didn’t know then, could we be induced to go back. Repression and careful whitewash of memory seems the only way we could be induced to send our own children through the gauntlet.

Adults may stumble in and out of the periphery but teenagers inhabit a world unto themselves. Caste is determined by where and with whom one eats lunch. Friendships are malleable, practical coalitions designed to help navigate rocky shoals. Love is a heavy weight. As currency it doesn’t buy much. It certainly isn’t enough to save friends from destroying themselves.

The grace of Brick is that it acknowledges just how very high the stakes are for those who wander the linoleum halls. High school is not where one spends the last golden days of childhood, but the place where one gets jumped into the gang of adulthood. If Lord of the Flies is not assigned reading it should at least be issued as a survival guide. Brick knows that some kids get lost. They don’t successfully navigate anything. They make serious mistakes, make wrong choices, that will determine a downward trajectory for their lives.

If I’ve made it sound all dark and dismal rest assured that, like the best film noir, there is plenty of humor. Joseph Gordon-Levitt portrays Brendan, the stoic, wisecracking kid whose brain never stops working the angles, who is always hiding a surprise up his sleeve, even as he wears his heart upon it. Emilie de Raven, known to some of us as Claire from Lost, takes a welcome respite from the land of whine and mangos, to give us Emily, the ethereal beauty Brendan cannot let go. Emily left Brendan because she couldn’t stand his solitary life, but her attempts to transform into a social butterfly prove deadly. Like the best gumshoes, Brendan is motivated not only by love, but by guilt.

Brick isn’t perfect. It appears that the characters attend a high school completely bereft of a student body, beyond themselves. A few of the characters push the lid over the top, and a few are confusingly extraneous. But in its entirety, the movie is entertaining as hell, and days later I find myself musing over what might become of the characters after the screen goes dark. It’s a great accomplishment for a young director with a young cast.

Teen movies often have an unspoken underlying premise in which high school is seen as less serious than the adult world. But when your head is encased in that microcosm it's the most serious time of your life. – Rian Johnson

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